When fly-fishers gather and begin discussing the skill level or success rate of fellow anglers, you often hear the expression, “I would rather be lucky than good.” This is probably due to the fact that in fishing, perhaps more so than in other endeavors, as far as catching fish is concerned, a certain amount of luck is always part of the equation. However, even though we can all cite instances of “beginner’s luck,” it’s been demonstrated time and again that, in the long run, it is the skillful angler who ends up having the most success.
Aside from the factor of tackle size, fly-fishers have two choices to make in the presentation phase of the contest between angler and fish. One is what fly to select. The other has to do with the fly line you use to cast it. Fly selection can be a matter of endless debate, but the challenging part of this that makes it fun is that there will never be any definitive answers. Choosing a fly line, however, is considerably more straightforward.
Building the System
There is a fly line manufactured for practically every species and locale imaginable. The problem is that, with all the lines available, there can be a great deal of confusion in what line to select. One solution that takes the concept of interchangeable tips one step further is to change the line itself, and the most practical way to do this is to use a shooting head system.
What makes this possible is the fact that a shooting head system consists of two separate lines: a relatively small-diameter running line and a larger-diameter shooting one. Normally, the two are joined together via a loop-to-loop connection. The late casting champion Myron Gregory first introduced me to this system back in the early 1970s. Gregory was one of the first to use this setup in a casting tournament at the Golden Gate casting ponds in San Francisco, California, in the 1930s. The combination of the thin-diameter running line being carried by the heavier head section is designed to afford maximum casting distance. When you have to make long-distance presentations or cover a lot of water, a shooting head system is the ideal choice.
Traditionally, the head portion is 30 feet long. That makes changing lines easy. All you do is coil the head around your hand, pass it through a 6- to 8-inch loop in the running line, secure it with something like a pipe cleaner, grab a different head and interlock it with the running line loop. Basing recommended line weights on full-length weight-forward lines, the standard practice is to increase line shooting head weights typically by two line sizes. Thus, an appropriate shooting head for an 8-weight rod would be one with a 10-weight designation. For a 10-weight rod, use a 12-weight shooting head. For those who prefer to select their lines by grain weight, the following is a useful guide: For an 8-weight fly rod, the head should weigh approximately 300 grains, a 9-weight rod will handle 350 grains, a 10-weight rod 400 grains, an 11-weight 450 grains and a 12-weight 500 grains.
Make Short Work of It
In terms of casting ease, for single-handed fly rods, you generally would not want a head longer than 30 feet. With these rods you will find that heads over 30 feet begin to become more difficult to cast. This is simply due to the fact that the final forward cast should not be made until the entire length of the head and a portion of the running line (as a general rule of thumb, 3 to 6 feet of running line) are completely outside the rod tip. Normally, when I am making a custom head, I cut it to a length of about 27 or 28 feet. In practical fishing situations, particularly where you have limited room for a backcast, these shorter lines are much easier to handle.
If you are just learning to cast, do not be put off by the mistaken claim that shooting heads are only for advanced casters. In fact, when teaching, the line I often put in the hands of first-time casters is a floating shooting head. Because the weighted portion of the line being cast is only 30 feet, even novice casters can readily begin to feel the line bend the rod on the back and forward strokes of the rod. The one advanced technique that should be mastered when casting shooting heads is the double haul. A shooting head is designed to minimize the number of false casts, and the double haul is the key to developing optimum line speed, eliminating the need for additional casting strokes.
How to Cast a Shooting Head
In addition to getting the entire 30-foot head section outside of the rod tip, a section of the trailing running line must also extend past the tip-top. A common mistake made by those who are not familiar with these lines is to extend too much running line beyond the tip. When this happens you’ll see the person wave the rod all over the place with little or no movement imparted to the shooting head. This is because the small-diameter running line cannot support the thick, heavier shooting head. To get the head to move when you stroke the rod, you have to get it relatively close to the rod tip.
You can practice with the entire head extended past the rod tip, but in fishing situations, the line may be stripped in to the point where the shooting head is well inside the rod guides. When this is the case, to get it outside the rod tip to make another cast you’ll have to make a roll cast. If you are using a sinking shooting head, a roll cast will also be required to bring the head out of the water. If the head is only a few inches below the surface, before you can execute a cast, you must bring the head to the surface by using a roll cast. This is really the only reason novice casters find it easier to use floating lines; they’re on the surface ready to be cast.
Casting Sinking Systems
Since you want to learn how to handle sinking lines, you’ll want to practice on the water. Strip in the line to a point where the head and approximately 2½ to 3 feet of running line are outside the rod tip. Next, make a roll cast to bring the head to the surface. If you execute the roll cast properly, one roll cast is generally all it takes to accomplish this. However, if the head has sunk more than a few feet with a heavily weighted fly, you may have to make an additional roll cast to bring everything to the surface. With the line on the surface, immediately begin sliding it off the water for the backcast stroke. Execute the backcast with the easiest stroke possible. Go slowly and smoothly both with the line haul and the speed-up, and stop the stroke with the rod. Do the same on the forward cast stroke. The only difference is that on the forward cast you can make a sharper haul with the line hand. Also make a concerted effort to gradually accelerate the forward stroke followed by a brief absolute stop with the rod hand. When you get it right, the line will rocket out over the water.